The balloon burst at Wembley, but England reporter Simon Hart prefers to think about the good times at EURO 2020.
Gareth Southgate, not for the first time, found the perfect words for the scenes at the end of last night’s EURO 2020 final. "Tonight the balloon is burst," said the vanquished England manager. It certainly felt that way as the rain of an English summer fell, and the celebrating Italians sang of an Italian one – Un'estate italiana.
The fact the Italian song was the soundtrack to a home tournament which ended with the bitter flavour of defeat on penalties – Italia '90 in the Azzurri’s case – was just one of the ironies to be found as Southgate stood comforting players who had missed spot kicks, suffering the fate he had endured 25 years earlier in the semi-final of EURO '96 (after a 1-1 draw in which England had scored after three minutes, no less). Another of those "oh-so-nears" that are sung about in Three Lions and all the more ironic for Southgate's admirable efforts to unburden his players of England's past and write a new history.
And yet this seventh English shoot-out loss in a major tournament should not diminish all that Southgate and his players have achieved en route to their nation's first major final in five and a half decades. Nobody who was at Wembley for the victory over Germany – a first tournament knockout win over those old rivals since 1966 – will forget the noisy support and outpouring of joy at the finish. Likewise the semi-final triumph over Denmark in front of more than 60,000 at Wembley. In the words of Neil Diamond: "Good times never seemed so good." (Or the new Wembley so loud.)
A nation which has felt divided in some respects in recent times suddenly came together, brought together by a likeable young team given freedom to express themselves on and off the field by Southgate – and don't forget the starting XI for the group fixture against Scotland was England's youngest at a major tournament with an average age of 25 years and 31 days. Back at base at St George's Park, it was clear this was a group genuinely enjoying their time together.
Milestones worth recalling are the five straight clean sheets by a back line which conceded only twice (both set-piece goals) and the three straight knockout wins with which England advanced to the final – the latter another of those feats last seen in that summer of '66.
There were notable performers: from established ones like Raheem Sterling, whose goals got the team through the group stage, and Harry Maguire (and how Southgate's gamble there paid off) to those who flowered spectacularly in this tournament like Kalvin Phillips – who ended the tournament third behind Pierre-Emile Højberg and Jorginho for ball recoveries (with 45) – and Luke Shaw who followed up three assists with his debut England goal in the final. The explosion of noise at Shaw's goal against Italy – and England’s fast start – promised a night for the ages but then they dropped back and the Azzurri took over.
But back to the big picture. Not easy in defeat, but Harry Kane did his best when he gave EURO2020.com the following reflection: "I think when we look back maybe in a month or so, we'll appreciate what we've done, appreciate the love and togetherness that we've shown the country and it's been amazing to be a part of for sure.
"We're footballers, we're winners, we're sportsmen, we want to win in everything we do so, of course, it's going to hurt, it's going to be hard to take. But, the bigger picture, we've got further in a tournament, our first final in 55 years so now we've got to build on this, we've got a great young squad. They'll learn from this, we'll all learn from this and, hopefully, we can progress even further next year."
With Southgate at the helm, England’s progress has already been substantial with a World Cup semi-final three years ago and now this run to EURO final, before the narrowest of defeats by an accomplished Italy side.
"We built strong bonds in Russia and that’s continued through this tournament," he reflected last night. "Tonight the balloon is burst and the feeling around the country will be very empty, I know, and that’s hard for everybody to take. We wanted to give everybody one more night that would continue the biggest party ever. We haven’t been able to do that but I hope that we've given everybody some incredible memories." They certainly have; those good times really did feel good.